Moonshades is… fine. It was originally a dungeon crawler released onto mobile, where it earned a not small number of fans for being a particularly earnest effort at recapturing the most old school of old school dungeon crawlers. Now it has been ported to the Nintendo Switch and… it’s fine. There are a lot of good dungeon crawlers on this console, and Moonshades isn’t one of those, but it’s a passable way to spend a bit of time.
There’s a nice bit of lore driving behind the game. A massive wave of monsters has decimated humanity, and sent them fleeing into the mountains. Then two people come along to turn the tide. That’s the two people you control. And so your quest begins… and yes, I realise that this is both very generic and very shallow, but it taps right into the themes and tone that the nostalgic-inclined will have for old SSI Dungeons & Dragons games, and Moonshades is very much pitched at people who know what an Eye of the Beholder is. The deeper you delve into this crawler the more some surprising little nuances start to pop up through the level design, the enemies you fight, and the scraps of explicit narrative you come across. It’s no masterpiece, and there are games that do ambient storytelling far better than this (I hate to say it, but games like Dark Souls), but nonetheless, Moonshades has a quality that subtly draws you in, and keeps you playing when you might have otherwise moved on.
The downside to this is that “traditional” can veer into “generic” quite easily, and while I found the narrative and storytelling of Moonshades to be quaint (and I do mean that in a good way), I found the enemy and progression system to be the other kind of quaint: dull. Enemies are all pulled from the oldest monster manuals going around, and while they are nicely modeled, they amble around without a great deal of urgency, and do their business (i.e. attacking you) with a bare minimum of flash. Meanwhile, all the special abilities and spells are likewise functional rather than flashy. You could argue that this is appropriate to the homage, but I would point to Legend of Grimrock as an example of a dungeon crawler that is simultaneously classical in theme and tone while also doing something to establish its own identity. Moonshades lacks the latter; it has no real identity of its own.
What Moonshades also doesn’t do well is the controls and UI, which have been adapted from mobile in a way that can only be called “amateur”. From simple actions like bringing up the inventory menu, right through to the way that magic and special abilities operate in battle, navigating around Moonshades is cumbersome to the point of being confounding. Will you get used to it? Yes, as you play on, but that initial wrestle is enough to get the game off to a really bad start. Thankfully the puzzles and traps don’t rely on precision control (they would be most aggravating if they did), so at no stage is playability a concern, but the omnipresent nature of this control scheme is a constant reminder that you’re playing an enthusiast-level production here.
One thing the developer did get right, and this surprised me given that it’s a free-to-play game on mobile and that usually means “grind”: Moonshades moves along at a more than reasonable pace. There’s just enough challenge there to keep you on your toes (which you’ll want, anyway, given that the games of yesteryear that inspired this were usually brutal), but at the same time, the developer understood that people aren’t going to want to be frustrated by a game like this. It knows its place and sticks to its lane, and I actually find that admirable.
I don’t have much else to say about Moonshades. You know if you’re the target market for it or not just by looking at it. If you are, then aside from some cumbersome controls and a generally generic approach to the genre, Moonshades is a perfectly decent effort that will scratch an itch. If you’re a more peripheral fan of the ‘crawler, or new to it all, I’d recommend something like Operencia or Hyakki Castle first. Both of those titles are far more vivid and creative efforts. Without a long history in ‘crawlers yourself, unfortunately, Moonshades will likely be befuddling.
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